Will Rugby Championship put All Blacks' World Cup at risk?
While England and Wales head to World Cup training camps, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia are preparing for a bruising
With the Rugby World Cup only nine weeks away, teams from the southern hemisphere are gearing up for the Rugby Championship, the bruising four-way battle for supremacy below the equator.
Tournament favourites and current World Cup holders New Zealand take on Argentina in Christchurch on Friday morning, before travelling thousands of miles to face South Africa the following weekend.
Two weeks after that the All Blacks will travel across the Tasman for a bone-crunching showdown with old rivals Australia. They will then have just six weeks to recover before the start of their World Cup campaign against Argentina, again, at Wembley on 20 September.
Australia are in the World Cup's so-called 'group of death' with both England and Wales. But while their two rivals are already at high-altitude training camps preparing for the tournament, the Aussies are steeling themselves for the visit of South Africa this weekend, a trek to Argentina the following week and then a clash with the All Blacks.
And although this year's Championship has been truncated – the nations will play each other once rather than twice – the dangers for all four southern hemisphere sides are obvious, even to Americans.
The teams will have to "endure heavy travel loads, as well as no-holds-barred test matches", says the New York Times. "Few, if any, other sports would have a schedule that requires teams to play tournaments so close to their showcase events. But it has always been that way with rugby in the south, and players and coaches accept the situation and adapt to it."
Championship matches will be played at full pace, there is a lot at stake, but some familiar faces may be withdrawn from the firing line, giving others the chance to stake a claim for the World Cup. New Zealand winger Waisake Naholo will be handed a debut against Argentina, for example.
The four teams will be "looking to resolve all their World Cup selection issues over the next four weeks, which will bring added intensity to everybody's play, especially those who are clearly on trial or playing for the final places in the squad," writes Brendan Gallagher for the Rugby Paper. "Even a legend of the game such as Dan Carter, to a certain extent, will be under scrutiny."
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen may think that the Championship tests guarantee that the southern hemisphere teams will arrive in England "battle-hardened", but Mick Cleary of the Daily Telegraph is not convinced.
"Where would a coach rather be – in Denver or Doha, or wherever the northern hemisphere sides are hanging out for their summer training sessions, or watching through their fingers as their main men batter each other?" he asks. "South Africa are already without a clutch of front-liners, including influential No 8 Duane Vermeulen. There will be more casualties, injuries that will have a significant knock-on effect in the World Cup."